Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Seven Secrets to Winning a Grand Prix Running Series

This weekend's Jenkinson Lake Fall Trail Runs 50K was the season finale of the grand prix series. The series kicked off with the Pony Express race at the end of February and consisted of 9 races with distances ranging from 20-miles to 12-hour runs.

I am very happy to report that I clinched the series title for the second time!

In 2007, I learned a few lessons about what it takes to win a grand prix series. That year, the series became a mano-y-mano duel with my good friend Scott Dunlap, and I ended up winning the series--and the associated $3000 supersonic mattress grand prize--by just one and a half points (out of 282 total points). In the end it all came down to the last race--if the overall 50-mile winner had run just a few minutes slower, I would taken second place. Way too close!

Jethro Smith Wins Second Place Overall in the Grand Prix

Some people have asked, so at the risk of shooting myself in the foot for a future grand prix series title attempt in 2011 (I am not running the entire series next year), I'll share with you my seven secrets for winning a grand prix running series. Actually, most of these concepts are so basic that they can hardly be called "secrets," but make a few mistakes and your series title hopes can be toast. There is some strategy behind it.

Lainie Callahan-Mattoon Takes Home Hardware for Winning First Place Overall in the GP

Having run quite a few of these series, I know now that it is actually possible for a non-elite runner (like me) to do quite well or even win. You don't have to be a mountain goat or even super fast. A firm aim coupled with some smart strategy and some hard work (and a little luck) is all you really need. It is true--the tortoise can beat the hair.
  1. Go For It!--That is, make the conscious decision to compete in the entire series up front, train for it, and add the races to your schedule. Entering one of the early races with a let's-just-see-what-happens attitude leaves a lot to chance.
  2. Start Out "Guns Blazing"--Once you have decided to really go for it, you want to create the biggest gap on the competition as you can in the shortest amount of time. You want to kick butt and take names starting at race number 1. This doesn't mean that you should show up at the first race and start running like a 10-year old, however. It does mean that you ramp up training well in advance of the first race and taper properly. The first series race is often early in the year and many people will skip running in the cold winter months; instead using the early races to get in shape. It certainly helps if you can be in great shape at the start of the very first race.
  3. Show Up--This, you could argue, is one of my specialties. As I mentioned before, you don't have to be the fastest runner or the best climber. If you're not at the starting line at 7 a.m. all those great strengths won't do you much good.
  4. Finish--David Goggins recently said: "It's not about winning; it's about not quitting." That's true. You really don't have to win every race outright to do well, but you have to actually cross the finish line at some point for your results to count towards your overall points.
  5. Every Minute Counts--While you're in a series race, keep moving forward. In the end, the series could be decided by just a few minutes, so you don't want to think back with regret about that time where you leisurely sat down at an aid station, chatting it up with your friends. For an hour. Also, if you really want to do well, organize a crew that can keep you moving. You can save a huge amount of time with a seasoned crew that is aware of all your preferences. (A huge thank you to Chris, Rebecca, and Troy for coming out to crew for me this year!)
  6. Read--Carefully read the series rules, and the individual race details, including course maps for races that you have not run before and scout out the race course before the race if you can. Your best race time is usually achieved when you run the most even pace throughout the race. Knowing the course will allow you to set specific time goals for a course.
  7. Super-Size It--Sometimes races offer a variety of distances. For example, a 6 or a 12-hour run, offering a series point per mile. Always run the absolute longest distance you can to pick up the most points possible. You never know. Sometimes things come up and you may have to miss one of the races (I missed one due to a nearby forest fire this year). Running the longest possible distance every time you can will put some points in the grand prix bank. Occasionally, however, it may pay off to run a shorter distance for some reason. Again, being familiar with the race details is key here.
And... don't forget the other half: hard work and luck. At some point, competing in series race after series race and always trying to be on top of your game can wear you out and it starts to feel a little bit like a job. You have to grind out some miles here and there on tired legs and isn't always fun. Of course, there is a certain element of luck involved as well. To stay injury free, to pick the right race--you never know how things will work out. Oh, and, try to have some fun while you're out there, too. One thing I really enjoyed during the series was meeting old and new running friends at every race.

Yesterday's Race--The Season Finale
Here's a quick report about yesterday's Jenkinson Lake Trail Run 50K.

The race offers a choice of up to four 8-mile, 95% single-track trail loops around Jenkinson Lake. It uses the same course as the Jenkinson Lake Spring Run, except that it was run in reverse and had an extra half mile.

Adventure Racer Mats Ready to Run (and Win!) the 24-Miler

There were some new faces at the start along with some die-hard grand prix racers trying to get some final points in the final race of the season--Gretchen, Lainie, Jethro, and Matt. The race started out fast, I led for the first 4 miles or so and then let the 16-milers set the pace. I chatted briefly with Swedish adventure racer Mats Jensen (last name?) who was running the 24-miler and then it became pretty quiet.

I cranked up some tunes on lap 2 and 3 and was in first place in the 50K, but slowing down a little bit each lap and walking more of the steep hills. The last month of less than 10 training miles and eating danishes was rapidly catching up to me. I plodded my way through the third lap and then, finally, it was time for the victory lap that I had been envisioning since the beginning of the year! The ultra series title was mine unless I fell into Lake Jenkinson and drowned.

Matt Thau Ran Every Single GP Race this Year and Takes Third Place Overall

Ed Walsh and a friend of his were manning the first aid station and Ed kindly kept me posted on where I was relative to the other 50K runners. A lot of runners dropped down to the 24-mile race and apart from Lainie, who was about five minutes behind me, there was nobody in sight. With the series win in the bag, it was hard to get motivated to pick up the pace significantly.

Ed Walsh (right) Won the 60-69 AG

Lainie, who was running another strong race, passed me at the final aid station of the bell lap--both of us were happy to be done with the race and the series in general. Lainie went on to win the 50K and she also won the female grand prix title, followed by Gretchen and Jennifer Dicus.

Lainie Wins the 50K, and the Overall Grand Prix Title

I just kept running at my own pace until I reached the finish line, where Lainie, Jethro, and their parents, Matt, Robert, and Linda were all cheering. It was great to finish what I had started so long ago. A huge congratulations to all the other grand prix finishers and their support crews. Next year has even more races, including a new race at Bullard's Bar Dam that I will be designing the course for. Stay tuned for more details on that.

We had a short awards ceremony and the top-three winners overall, as well as the age group winners, received a truckload of goodies and prizes. For winning the series overall, I received an all-expense-paid vacation package worth $550 (the real reason my family was so supportive of these monthly races!) and another $200+ worth of useful other running-related goodies, like two pairs of Inov-8 shoes, Hammer gel, a Fuel Belt hydration pack, and more.

Jethro (2nd overall), Matt (3rd overall and only one to run every race), and Yours Truly--Watch Out For These Guys Next Year!

Thanks to Robert and Linda, Ed Walsh, and all the other great volunteers, and to the grand prix sponsors for making this an exciting (and rewarding) series. I'll take a break next year, but I may be back for the hat-trick in 2011! So far, in the series history (since 2004), only Beverly Anderson Abbs and I have won two series titles.

Next up: Relaxing... and a few interesting bike rides around Lake Tahoe and around the Sutter Buttes.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Book Review: Running Across Countries

With Russell Secker at the Tahoe Triple

This summer, I stumbled upon Russell Secker's blog and I have been following it ever since. I read his daily reports from the 2800-mile Trans Europe Race with great interest and wondered what it must be like to run 40+ miles a day for two months. In the eyes of a Transcontinental runner, the Tahoe Super Triple would simply be two short and easy stages and one long one!

Last week, after the Tahoe Triple race buffet, I finally had the privilege to meet Russell in person. He was in Tahoe to help coach some Texas runners to a successful Tahoe Triple finish. I also met Russell's German stage-racing friend Hans Drexler who was running the Tahoe Triple as a "short stage race." Russell was promoting his new book, Running Across Countries and he was also going to run a quick lap around the lake (this was, of course, canceled so he ran the 10K instead).

I bought a signed copy and Chris and Rebecca quickly devoured this 177-page book while they were waiting for me at the different crew stops along the lake. Before I knew it, they were yelling "inspirational" quotes from the book as they were pulling alongside me on the road. "Toughen up, Buttercup" had to be their favorite quote!

Running Across Countries is a book about Russell's favorite kind of race--the ultra stage race. Russell is definitely qualified to tell the story, having finished several runs across Germany, France, and to top it off, the 2009 edition of the Trans Europe Footrace, from Italy to Norway.

The book describes what it takes to run ultra stage races, what you can win (not a red cent), and it chronicles Russell's adventures at the stage races that he participated in--including the 2003 Tahoe Triple, and the 2008 Tahoe 72-Mile Ultra--in Russel's unique, light, and very humorous writing style.

I thoroughly enjoyed Running Across Countries; it's a real page turner and a must-buy for any ultrarunner (especially considering its attractive price). Running Across Countries provides a unique look into ultra stage racing. As an ultrarunner, I was very surprised at how much new information this book contained. It's definitely a different beast than the hundred-miler or any other "one-shot" ultra for that matter. The big difference is that you have to get up at 4 a.m. the next morning again to grind out yet another 40+miler.

64 days in a row.

Nutritional demands change, too. A normal prerace pasta dinner results in extreme fat and protein cravings. Running that long really seems to strip people down to their essence and the book explains that a few minutes of extra rest, a cup of hot Ramen noodles at an aid station, or an extra sandwich in the morning are the sort of thing that transcontinental runners long for the most. Running through pain is inevitable, even for the front runners, who amazingly cover 2800 miles at roughly a 3:30 marathon race pace.

The Trans Europe Stages

I also appreciated Russell's approach to DNFs. He writes that "quitting is harder than keeping going," and to avoid a DNF (Did Not Finish) at all cost. "Never, ever drop out unless there is a compelling medical issue like a broken leg, or a heart attack." That exactly sums up my approach to ultrarunning. I know this is a very controversial issue in the ultrarunning community. It's the "Never-DNF" approach against "Save -it-for-another-day" and nobody is right, of course.

I do think that there is a mental "DNF treshold" though, which is slightly lowered every time a race is abandoned (this is just my take on things--to each his own). Being absolutely convinced that you can and will finish is even more important in long stage races, because you are bound to go through some pretty bad lows and your mind will start playing tricks with you. Not even having the mental option to DNF can be a race-saver in those cases.

In the beginning of Russell's book, he credits another book about stage racing--Running the Trans America Footrace by Barry Lewis--as the source of inspiration for Russell's trans-continental running, and now Russell has passed it on. Running a long ultra stage race sounds like a great adventure to me--definitely on my list of things to do. Now I just need to strike it rich and retire early, because transcontinental racing is not exactly cheap and I don't think I want to wait until I am 65!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Gold Country 20-Miler

Karalee Morris (first overall in the 20-miler) and I

On Saturday, I had to fly to Denmark for work. However, I also wanted to run the Gold Country 50K (and pick up some grand prix points to stay in first place) that day, but knew I would never be able to finish it in time for my 1 o'clock flight (it is about a 45-minute drive to the airport from Auburn). Skipping the race would be risky though (I just might lose my first place overall).

Robert Mathis (RD) Explains the Course

Fortunately, there was also a 20-mile option. I had run the course before and estimated that it would take me about 3:15 to run 20 miles and that would leave me exactly 15 minutes to get changed and book it to the airport.
Jethro Smith (Second in the Grand Prix) Gets Ready
I started out fast on the four-mile downhill section to No-Hands Bridge, where Lainie was running the aid station. I could still feel some residual fatigue from the Tahoe Triple in my legs, expecially on the flats and the uphills.
Ray Sanchez pulled past me on the first uphill (K2) and soon after that, Aaron Summerhayes passed me as well. Aaron had marked the course, but he was patching up the flagging as he went, because a lot of the flags had been taken down and thrown on the ground.
At one point, Aaron and I came to an intersection that had been vandalized. Somebody had changed the tape around altogether and that had sent Ray the wrong way. Fortunately, Aaron quickly corrected it for me and all the other runners, and Ray could run the loop in reverse without losing time. I really don't understand why someone would do this. Let's just say it was a good thing we did not run into these pranksters (Ray being an ex-golden glove boxer and... let's just say it is hard to outrun any of us). So, vandalize at your own risk!

Aaron Summerhayes Marked the Original Course and Marked it Again While Running!

The rest of the run was pretty uneventful. It was a great day for a morning run, but I kept looking at my watch to see how I was doing for time. I made it back to No Hands bridge with 45 minutes to spare. I was in first place in the 20-miler at that point. I slowed down a bit on the uphill sections and this is where Karalee passed me like I was standing still. She ran a great race and finished in first place overall.
I finished in 3:17 and that's when the real race began. For winning the male race, I received a shoe certificate, I ate about ten pieces of watermelon, and then Vicky and the kids helped hose me off, and I changed in less than 5 minutes. Then we were off to the airport! I made it in time and made it safely to Aarhus Denmark where I will be presenting a training session at the JAOO conference this week. And, guess what? The conference is going to put on a 7.5 kilometer run on Tuesday night. That should be fun.
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